The rich and nuanced history of black people in tennis

BY RHIANNON WALKER | The Undefeated

Three events in the 1890s shaped how black people could participate in tennis during its formative years in the United States. The first was the passage of a Louisiana law in 1890 that stated blacks and whites were to be provided “separate railway carriages.”

The second was the decision by Homer Plessy, who was seven-eighths white and one-eighth black, to purchase a first-class ticket on June 7, 1892, and intentionally sit in the whites-only car. Plessy knew that regardless of his appearance as a white man, he was subject to the “one-drop rule,” which made him black in the eyes of the law.

Plessy went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 to fight the constitutionality of the 1890 law in the case Plessy vs. Ferguson. Plessy argued that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment had been violated. The Supreme Court ruled that racially separate facilities were not unconstitutional as long as they were equal.

The ruling allowed Jim Crow segregation to run rampant in the U.S., and until the mid-20th century, blacks were barred from white-only public spaces.

The third occurred two years after the Supreme Court ruling: Rev. W.W. Walker organized the first African-American Interstate Tournament held at the Chautauqua Tennis Club in Philadelphia.

The Undefeated will be publishing stories every day this week on the history of blacks in tennis and the multiple nuances that led to their success and excellence in the U.S. and abroad.

For 18 years, the loosely run African-American Interstate Tournament rotated among Northeastern cities until the creation of the American Tennis Association, the first professional black sports league in the U.S., in 1916. The ATA’s first national championships were held a year later at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore.

Much of what we know about those first few championships and the players who participated is due solely to the existence of the black press in the form of the Baltimore Afro-AmericanChicago DefenderNew York Amsterdam, Philadelphia Tribune and Los Angeles Sentinel, among others.

Historically black colleges and universities also played a crucial role in the success of the organization by hosting the ATA’s tournaments on their campuses. Hampton University hosted the first national championships in the South.

“It was a phenomenal experience, because you would go for a week or two … and that was an opportunity you had to meet black tennis players from all over the country,” said former ATA men’s singles and doubles champion Arthur Carrington Jr. “The Nationals played a great part in a national network of tennis players.

“Hampton had an outstanding relationship with the ATA because you had segregation, but you had black beaches. You had a whole social component on the campus, as well as off the campus. … They had boat rides, bridge games – some people came to the ATA just to play bridge for the whole week; they’d never see a tennis match. You had all kinds of black celebrities.”

Just as there were blacks who could have played major league baseball had they not been banned, the same was true for tennis. Stars such as Talley Holmes, Ora Washington, Bob Ryland, sisters Margaret “Pete” and Matilda “Re-Pete” Roumania Peters, and Nathaniel and Franklyn Jackson played much or all of their prime when the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) wouldn’t let them play on the same courts as the white stars.

For movie star Gene Kelly, the USLTA’s exclusion of the Peters sisters meant little, as he enjoyed playing tennis with the pair in Georgetown near their homes in Washington, D.C. Matilda Peters was one of a handful of women to beat Althea Gibson, who won 10 consecutive ATA women’s singles championships and became the first black player to win a Grand Slam title in 1957.

Gibson broke the color barrier for blacks in tennis in 1950, three years after Jackie Robinson in baseball and four years before Brown vs. Board of Education dismantled “separate but equal” in 1954.

Years later, Arthur Ashe would become the first black man to win a Grand Slam title. In 1968, the same year Ashe won the first U.S. Open in the Open era, he was also working to bring an Association of Tennis Professionals tournament to Washington, D.C. The tournament, which is now the Citi Open, is being played this week.

“The biggest thing was that it was in a public park, and at that time, most tennis tournaments were at country clubs,” said Willis Thomas Jr., vice president of programs for the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation. “This was in a public park, the way Arthur grew up, and I’m quite sure he wanted it available for everybody.”

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